FILED UNDER SOMETHINGISRAELI >> Technology
In an era of perpetually rising fuel costs, the search for alternative energy sources has surged. Scientists and engineers worldwide are scrambling to devise practical and affordable new ways of powering our homes, cars and businesses as global fossil fuel reserves slowly diminish.
One clear and very affordable solution, according to the scientists who are developing it, is nuclear power. "If you compare energy sources in terms of cost effectiveness, there is absolutely nothing to compare. Nuclear energy is by far superior," says Professor Alex Galperin, chair of Israel's Ben Gurion University of the Negev's nuclear engineering department.
Created by the energy released during fission or splitting of nuclei atoms within heavy elements such as uranium or during fusion of light nuclei atoms such as hydrogen, nuclear power was independently discovered in the 1930s by scientists Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann of Germany and Irene and Frederic Joliot-Curie of France.
Today, the controlled use of nuclear reactions for energy is spreading. France is the world leader in nuclear consumption, deriving 80% of the country's energy from 60 nuclear reactors. Japan and the US, also nuclear production intensive, lead the world in terms of energy output.
In the UK, there are 16 nuclear power plants, half operated by British Nuclear Fuels (BNFL), and the other half by British Energy. They currently produce about a quarter of Britain's electricity. Many are too old, however, to continue operating efficiently and safely and are being phased out. By 2023, only 4% of Britain's electricity will come from nuclear power, and the last power plant is expected to close in 2035.
"One of the major problems with nuclear energy is that people are scared of it," says Galperin's colleague Dr. Eugene Shwageraus. "People identify nuclear with nuclear weapons. How real that is, is a debatable matter of speculation and public perception."
Public perception took a hit after accidents at Three Mile Island, in Pennsylvania and at Chernobyl in the Ukraine in 1986. Some 16 million people are still suffering the effects of the fall-out at Chernobyl.
"Chernobyl sent us many steps backwards," Shwageraus explains. "Exaggerated concerns with safety cropped up and the entire nuclear business was shrouded in uncertainty." As a result, nuclear development costs soared, projects shut down and companies went bankrupt.
To ease the stigma, Shwageraus and a handful of fellow leading Israeli nuclear engineers are working to advance widespread nuclear acceptance and use.
"The very real major challenges we nuclear scientists face are waste management, sustainability, economics, safety and proliferation," Shwageraus elaborates. On a personal level, he is tackling those challenges by investing himself in research aimed at averting proliferation, tackling waste management and addressing safety issues.
Specifically, Shwageraus is participating in the Thorium Project: the development of a Thorium/Uranium combination for nuclear energy production initiated by pioneer nuclear scientist and former leading BGU nuclear reactor analyst Dr. Alvin Radkowsky in the 1950s. Based upon the premise of creating nuclear fuels that sever the link between nuclear weapons and nuclear power, Thorium energy produces less plutonium than conventional reactor fuel rendering it useless in weapons production.
Radkowsky died in 2002 but his legacy is sustained via continued research in the field.
"We're a very small group of nuclear scientists at Ben Gurion University but our scientific research is in the top-tier level," says Shwageraus.
The scientists participate in numerous international projects including collaborative work with the US Department of Energy's International Forum on enhanced proliferation resistance, a multi-million dollar project. "It's a forum of international experts looking at problems and concepts for new reactors and presenting ideas in a complete and comprehensive way," Shwageraus explains.
One of those ways is exploring cost effectiveness of nuclear energy. Although building power plants is highly cost intensive, uranium derived energy is insignificant in terms of end-user cost. If, say, petrol prices double, costs at a gas-fired power plant soar resulting in an 80% price increase to consumers. Even if uranium costs double, on the other hand, prices won't be reflected on energy bills.
Another project Shwageraus and colleagues are heading is research into gas cooled reactors. Markedly more efficient than conventional water cooled reactors, gas cooled reactors self-cool in the case of an accident, precluding human intervention. Gas cooled reactors are presumably safer than their water counterparts and can convert a larger proportion of fission-created heat to produce ultra-clean hydrogen fuel without using carbon dioxide.
"In South Africa right now the government is building a gas cooled reactor. The concept is very promising and the whole world is watching South Africa to see how it will go," Shwageraus says.
Additional research within BGU's nuclear engineering department includes projects aimed at tackling nuclear waste - a tremendous issue when foraying into the nuclear energy realm. The elements used in nuclear energy production are highly unstable and extremely radioactive with half-lives of thousands of years.
One solution to waste reduction is recycling actinides - the chemically similar, radioactive compounds that build up during energy production. The problem, however, is building a safe reactor core that can handle being loaded with long-life, highly radioactive actinides.
While Israel is not officially involved in programmes to recycle actinides, there is a sense that Israel's scientific minds have an active input into the framework being developed for the world via the Bush administration's Global Nuclear Energy Partnership Initiative (GNEP).
GNEP members include developed nations and Russia but Israel is officially excluded for not ratifying the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The treaty, signed by 188 sovereign states, stands for non-proliferation, disarmament and the right to peaceful use of nuclear technology.
According to Israel Atomic Energy Commission spokesperson Nili Lifshitz, while "Israel joined the consensus in the UN in 1968 regarding the NPT and it supports the non-proliferation regime... it believes that the Treaty is not appropriate for the Middle East, as many cases of non-compliance in our region have proven."
This is probably of little reassurance, however, to Israel's nuclear scientists attempting to develop workable energy solutions alongside global peers. Exclusion from nuclear energy conferences and blocked access to vital computer codes are common.
However, that is not stopping Israel from participating as a major player and contributor to the developing energy scene.
"The most outstanding contribution from here is non-proliferation fuel - the Thorium Project," Shwageraus concludes. "The political possibility for proliferation is always there. But it's not a real engineering or scientific problem. A reactor can be a tool for getting a weapon if misused but scientific solutions are in place to make it impossible or improbable. Bottom line is to get a bomb you have to have plutonium. And with the new technologies in place, you can't get pure plutonium anymore even if you want to."
Reproduced with permission: Bicom